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Book reviews

16 July 18

Review of The Secret Barrister

by Tom Johnston (review editor: David J Dickson)

The Secret Barrister

Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken


ISBN: 978-1509841103
PRICE: £16.99 (E-BOOK £8.09)

Pick up this book carefully, preferably with asbestos gloves. The heat engendered as it excoriates the current state of the English justice system is awesome. What makes it all the more frightening, is that it is all done in such measured tones. Facts and actual examples are set out; emotive language is missing. The author (“TSB”) is an anonymous barrister, describing him- or herself (my suspicion is that it’s a he, and I’ll proceed accordingly) as a junior member of the criminal Bar.

Reading the list of chapter headings gives a good indicator of content. (This is not always the case.) They include “The Wild West: The Magistrates’ Court”; “Watching the Guilty Walk Free: Prosecuting on the Cheap”; and “Legal Aid Myths and the Innocence Tax”.

TSB has conducted cases for both prosecution and defence. The demerits of both sides are set out clearly, as are the arguments for and against an adversarial system of justice. The problems facing the police are fairly acknowledged, while the all too common underhand practices are condemned. Surprisingly for a barrister, high praise is given to the solicitor branch of the profession, while the dodgy dealings of a few are exposed. Greatest concern is spared for victims of crime (in the widest sense, encompassing witnesses and others whose lives are affected, often for years, by their involvement in the system). The greatest contempt is reserved for politicians and those who distort the facts, often for cheap point scoring. The author puts it more eloquently when he writes of the incremental erosion of safeguards, “allowing politicians to bank transitory credit for being Tough on Crime”.

It’s a long time since I worked in criminal defence, but I’ve done enough of it over the years, and watched, appalled, from the sidelines these past 20 years at reforms which seem set on eradicating individual rights and emasculating defence work. While our Scottish system is different, many of the outrages set out in this book will be happening on our doorsteps too. An important point is made to explain the indifference of politicians – complacency. It can never happen to you. Oh yes it can, and it can happen to your son, or your friend’s daughter. I have had personal experience, a year of my life and 35 days in a dock before baseless charges were thrown out on no case to answer submissions. I was glad to have had a strong criminal defence team. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

Will such good quality defence people be available in the future? Allow me to quote TSB: “People have been foretelling the death of the criminal Bar for decades, but recently I sense a very real fear. I’ve seen many good people – barristers and solicitors – leave the stage. The impact of devastating cuts is on display daily in crime – viable prosecutions collapsing because of the unbearable pressure on the CPS; defendants corralled into making life-changing decisions on plea without sight of what would once have been considered fundamental evidence and disclosure; the ‘stack-em high, sell-em cheap’ ethos of the magistrates’ courts being rolled out in the Crown Court. It’s troubling.”

This book should be required reading for every politician and every journalist in the land. It’s not just troubling – it’s very frightening.

Tom Johnston


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